There existed no need for the standard introductory remarks. For the chairman, there was the very real danger the room would erupt in laughter anyway.
“We like to have a good standard of conduct here,” he would say in opening the March public hearing. “Everything is on the record. It might go to court someday. And we want to be portrayed, everyone, in a positive light. We want the hearing to be fair. We want everyone to be in a professional standard of conduct.”
But Inland Wetlands Commission Chairman Daniel Shapiro could not possibly utter those words and be taken seriously to start the April hearing. Documents uncovered by BranfordSeven.com had shown clearly that Shapiro was working with town employee Diana Ross well behind the scenes to alter key reports, and that fairness was the furthest from his mind.
But this meeting would prove different in the actions of the Commission. As while in the past there had been some sense or at least the façade, of fairness, Shaipro and his friends had no intention of even trying now.
What took place last week was the ultimate farce of the Inland Wetlands Commission. While Costco put on a master class in water runoff management, rebutting with science and experts all objections, Shapiro, and commissioners Killelea and Rusatsky, took turns alternating between attacking the applicants and looking as bored as humanly possible.
Costco took the floor after Keith Ainsworth, the attorney for the BCRD, an anti-Costco group led by Penny Bellamy, repeatedly attacked the character of Costco, accusing them of lying and working to mislead the Commission, even as all the evidence Ainsworth presented was false.
First, he accused them of attempting to file large amounts of information in an attempt to hide something. There was no evidence of that, and the peer reviewers and even the experts for the Land Trust felt differently.
Then, he told the Commission that Costco was hiding the fact that Costco was building a smaller store in east Lyme. Ainsworth was wrong again, actually, Aisnworth simply didn’t know the difference between gross square footage and net square footage of a structure.
Then the BCRD expert, Trinkaus Engineering, spend the better part of 20 minutes detailing how salt used on roads during snowstorms will be a major issue, despite the fact that the state uses the same salt as does every other property owner in the area. Shapiro used leading questions to get certain statement from Trinkaus; when Joe Montesano, the Costco representative, rebutted Trinkaus later, Shapiro would repeatedly cut him off.
It was evident just minutes in to Costco testimony the Commission wanted to hear none of it. Shapiro repeatedly asked them to hurry, reminded them it was getting late, and looked uninterested. Killelea repeatedly asked nonsensical questions, seemingly trying to catch Costco in a contradiction, attempts that were blown up as Costco presented details.
The attacks took their toll. Even those representing Costco starting losing their patience; and any semblance of an intelligent discussion was gone. Said one land owner in the audience: “I’ve been coming to meetings like this for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
What it means for Costco
There are two “elephants” in the room for these hearings now: first is the doctoring of the peer review, a clearly wrong act in the eyes of everyone except the Commission and the BCRD. Tom Cody, the attorney for Costco stated publicly they objected to the report, and when asked why, stated that it was signed by Milone and McBroom, and there was sufficient evidence that others had input into it. This was true, source documents show that Diana Ross, who in her emails states she was aided by Shapiro, added major parts to the review, including looking at a smaller structure, adding the need for more information even after the initial report stated the issues were “adequately addressed,” and arrives at highly altered conclusions.
Shapiro is a key part of the changes, as evidenced by a document that shows his handwritten alterations to the report, according to Ross emails. In fact, the initial report came in March 7, but Shapiro only read into the record the altered report dated March 9.
The second “elephant” is the fact that 4 of the Commissioners terms are up May 31. Shapiro, Killelea, Basserman and Gangi, who ever attends, will see their terms end.
Last year, when first selectman Jamie Cosgrove added a new member when the term of Richard Orsen expired, Shapiro was livid, even attending a Board of Selectman meeting to state it “was a sad day for Branford,” and that the change was “taking the science out from under us.” But the need for that change was well known privately, already there was one case in court where Orsen was allowed to serve as an expert and report back to the Commission he was a member of, meaning he could be a voting member on his own testimony, a clear issue. And now Shapiro has done the same, altering a key document behind closed doors that he would later have the Commission use, including himself, to make a decision.
Interestingly, Ainsowrth was a defender of Shapiro and Ross’ actions, stating this was normal interaction. He then listed 4 legal cases, none of which had any relevance. He also stated that the documents released by the town should have been protected by the FOIA statutes, expect he cited the wrong statute and the FOIA protect drafts of staff reports, not those of a third party.
Ultimately, Costco wins on the facts and evidence, but considering the disposition of the Commissioners, it may be hard to get a winning vote. Two members, Commissioners Goggin and Berke-Schlessel, both Cosgrove appointees, appear to be yes votes. Rusatsky and Shapiro are clearly no votes, and it seems Killelea has joined them after his behavior last week. Botta has asked logical questions, but has always been presumed to be a no vote; she is married to Chris Sullivan, the former chair of the Democrats who are fighting Costco and is an environmentalist. Peter Basserman also has been an exception on the Commission; if we count him as a yes vote, the application fails 4-3.
If it fails, Costco will have a decision to make. They can appeal the decision, or they can re-apply. With the behavior of the Commissioners, most notably Shapiro and Killelea, it is likely the makeup of the Commission will be significantly different come June.
What it means overall
What we clearly saw last week is evidence of what has been taking place behind the scenes for years. Remember Wayne Cooke driving around the town Green with a trailer about town corruption? While so much of that was issues done behind closed doors, this time it is was public; it seemed as though Shapiro no longer cared if the whole world saw the true colors of the Commission.
For example, let’s look at what Costco walked into: The Commission and Diana Ross had a close relationship with the DaRos administration, and did its bidding. That administration was led by Penny Bellamy, who now leads the BCRD. The Land Trust also signed on as intervenors, but internal pressure mandated they be logical, and meet with Costco. Costco welcomed that, and earned the praise f the Land Trust, so much so the Land Trust no longer opposed.
Once that took place, especially since the Land Trust owned the lands the BCRD was stating were in jeopardy, there was other talking points needed. Ross pressured Milone and McBroom to add major changes and new items to its “peer review,” most notably, the alternative of a smaller Costco and the narrative that the application was incomplete.
Amazingly, those new talking points added to the peer review became the centerpieces for the BCRD argument and Ainsworth’s filings.
However, the collusion becomes exposed soon after. But instead of admitting something wrong took place, the BCRD and Milone and McBroom state this is completely normal and nothing improper took place. Angry commissioners, instead of apologizing to Costco, rally around Shapiro and Ross, and attack the applicant.
And the sad part is, this is Branford corruption. It’s nothing new. And it’s happened for years.
What is means is that moving forward, Cosgrove has his work cut out for him. This Commission needs an overhaul, and it needs to be public who had influence over this process. If Ross does keep her job, it needs to be with a full disclosure of everything that took place.
It’s clear the town is behind Costco and Cosgrove, which means its decision time for even Democratic leaders. Do they stay loyal to the corruption of the previous regime or move forward? What trumps what, party loyalty or doing what is right for the town?
The towns top elected Democrat, Jack Ahern, has had a lot to say on appointments but not a word on this issue or Costco. Bellamy worked on Ted Kennedy's campaign, yet we hear nothing from him. Where is Fran Walsh, or or Unk DaRos, or the new DTC chairman on this? Do they advocate for the dishonest, and very public actions, of this group, or are they supporting Cosgrove making changes?
There is little point in breaking down specific arguments in the hearing, we did that in our preview article. Ainsworth lied, Costco called them on it. The facts favor one side. No logical person would debate that.
What remains is a decision for each one of us. This Commission, and possibly some town departments, need to be swept clean. Every applicant needs to know they will always get a fair hearing in this town. This is a town with grand plans: a new Community Center, a new Walsh School, and more. We have prepared ways to fund them, but are counting on increasing tax revenue and attracting younger families, something Costco plays a role in. We have a group of multi-millionaires led by Bellamy who could care less about the needs of the rest of us and fight for sport, misleading and lying in expert fashion as much as needed.
This is a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of town-wide honor. And it’s within our power to fix.